U 707, U 336 and the Jonathan Sturges – An example of bringing together former enemies
In October 1985 – a time where I still had to live with the then standard methods of archive work, no computers and none of the IT-facilities of today – the German Federal Ministry of Defence forwarded to me a request for information by a US citizen.
He has been a crewmember of the 7,156 GRT Liberty-vessel Jonathan Sturges under its master Thorbjörn Leerberg, which was sunk by a Kriegsmarine U-boat. He and initially 6 more sailors then drifted some 41 days (!!!) with a lifeboat, before in the end 6 survivors were picked up by another German U-boat that took them along to their base at Brest in German occupied France, from where they were transferred to a German PoW camp near Bremen. Now, he wanted to know which U-boat had sunk the Jonathan Sturges, and, above all, which U-boat did rescue them.
Soon, I started work that turned out to criminal investigation like research. As mentioned, I did not have the facilities of today at that time – and I did not have as many qualified volunteers as I have today. The Jonathan Sturges – we had good documentation on that in our U-boat Archive – had been sunk at position 46°15´N and 038°11`W by 2 torpedo hits from U 707 under the command of Oberleutnant zur See (= Lieutenant) Günter Gretschel during the first combat patrol of the boat (departure Kiel on 12 January 1943 and arrival at St. Nazaire on 08 March 1943). The merchant vessel was a struggler of convoy ON-166 (Liverpool-New York) and half way between Europe and America. Later, during her 4th combat patrol, U 707 was sunk herself on 09 November 1943 east off the Azores by a British aircraft, no one of the 51 crew members survived.
Big question remaining: Which German U-boat did rescue the American sailors then?
Now, detailed work started: I marked the position of the sinking at a nautical chart. From a sailing directory book I then looked up the direction and speed of the current of the Gulfstream, to dead reckon a sea area northeast of that position, where the lifeboat could have drifted into after 41 days.
Then, I had to cross-check all documents available at the archive to identify those U-boats that possibly might have operated during that time in sea areas at about 50°N and 020° – 025°W. I came up with 8 to 10 possible U-boats.
Next step: At that time we did not have paper copies of war diaries and we did not have yet all microfilm rolls where after the end of WW II the US had photographed on all U-boat war diaries. Unfortunately, there were few documents only available about just the U-boats in question.
But, I had thousands of contacts to former U-boatmen. Therefore, I phoned or wrote to those U-boat comrades still being alive, which might have sailed on board those U-boats identified by me, telling them of my research task. I was almost ready to give up, when on the 05 January 1988 a U-boat veteran, the former Petty Officer (Mechanics) Edwin Schimming from Rendsburg wrote a letter to me: “Yes, it was us!”. He was on board U 336 during its 3rd combat patrol (departure Brest 02 March1943 – arrival Brest 11 April 1943) and he was in the conning tower that day the lifeboat of Jonathan Sturges was sighted and the 6 surviving American sailors – totally saltwater crusted and almost died with thirst – were lifted from their life boat on board his U-boat. This was on the 05 April 1943, exactly 41 days after the sinking of their vessel – and it was on position 50°20´N and 025°50´W. My earlier calculation had turned out to be correct, after all! Later, when we were in the possession of the war diary of U 336 I was able to duplicate my calculation.
Sadly, U 336 was sunk during its 5th combat patrol on 05 October 1943 in the Denmark Strait, no survivors from the 50 men strong crew. I felt extreme joy that I had managed another time to generate an opportunity to bring together former enemies and their descendents, to eventually providing the ground for lasting friendships.
It was sad realizing that my joy about the case of Jonathan Sturges was too early: When I sent the results of my research to a friend of the archive in the US, including an invitation from the crewmember of U 336 and me, I was informed that the American sailor of the Jonathan Sturges had died in the meantime. So, I do hope that he will receive may answer in the Mariners heaven, where he certainly will meet his rescuer, who deceased soon after as well.
Written by Horst Bredow on 20 July 2012